Explaining the nicotine addiction

The nicotine contained in the smoke of a cigarette gets absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs. The human lungs have an enormous “surface area”, and are therefore extremely effective at doing this. Via the bloodstream, the nicotine ends up in the brain, where it changes the chemical balance. This affects the smoker’s mood and emotions, usually in a pleasurable way. For every puff he takes, the smoker is immediately rewarded with this “nicotine hit”.

nicotine addiction

The human body soon gets accustomed to this new chemical balance and is tricked into thinking that this should now be the status quo. When the nicotine is metabolised and the chemical balance starts returning to its previous, natural state, the brain will signal that it requires nicotine. The smoker is addicted.

At the same time, the pleasurable sensations the smoker has experienced will start to wane, and he will feel the urge to light up another cigarette, now that he firmly associates smoking with those feelings. In this way the addiction is reinforced.

In most cases smoking also becomes associated with certain types of behaviour such as social drinking (pub, dinner party), coffee-break, etc. Whilst at first the two activities (any of the before and smoking) were coincidental, because they are both experienced as enjoyable, they soon become associated with each other. Eventually it will seem nearly unthinkable to the smoker to do one of the activities without lighting up.

There are other factors that also contribute to the addiction such as the reassurance that most people feel by holding or doing something with their hands. Some people even argue that the cigarette is the grown-up equivalent of a baby’s dummy, an adult comforter, so to speak.

When a smoker tries to give up, he therefore faces a battle on three fronts: purely physical (chemical imbalance), emotional (pleasurable feelings) and behavioural/social (smoking-associated situations and activities).

That is why giving up smoking is so difficult.

Soon after someone stops smoking they will feel strong urges or cravings for a cigarette. The body thinks something is amiss. Additionally, when that person gets into situations or engages in activities that their mind associates with smoking, they will feel a strong compulsion to light up.

A lot of people will increase their smoking during times of stress. This is because stress is experienced as a negative emotion, which the smoker will naturally want to eliminate. Smoking is experienced as a pleasurable feeling. It is therefore only logical that the smoker will try to cover up the former with the latter.

The strength of nicotine addiction is more pronounced in some people than in others. Whereas one person will be able to give up fairly easily from one day to the next, others could not dream of doing that. It is not entirely clear why that is the case, but it seems that some human bodies metabolise nicotine more quickly than others. These will be the individuals that find it most difficult to quit. Perversely though, those who find quitting relatively easy, often have a lesser commitment to staying off nicotine than their more strongly addicted fellow ex-smokers.

Another factor that is significant in how strongly addicted a person is, is the length of time that they have been a smoker for. While younger people, who may only have smoked for a few years have a better chance of giving up, often middle-aged and older people who may have smoked for most of their lives will find giving up extremely hard. Because they are closer to suffering the inevitable health consequences, this older group may find a stronger motivation to quit than their younger counterparts in whose minds those consequences seem a life-time away.

The good news is that nicotine itself, although being the ingredient that makes people into cigarette addicts, is not what will cause the smoking related illnesses. These are brought on by tar and the myriad of other chemicals that are contained in tobacco. So those who find quitting hard, can now consume nicotine via gums or patches or by using the recently launched electronic cigarettes.

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